The Traitor by Michael Cisco

OK, so the next three posts will be about underrated writers and their books. These are not meant as any sort of scientific or comprehensive or even well-considered reviews; rather, they are the last three books I’ve read and felt that I should’ve been informed of their existence long before, and that all of them belong on every self-respecting bookshelf. All three are published by independent presses and all three are still in print, so you should totally buy those books and read them and love them to bits. Or buy them at the very least. So, here in order are some thoughts on Michael Cisco’s The Traitor (Prime Books), Carol Ermshwiller’s The Mount (Small Beer Press), and Sean Stewart’s Mockingbird (Small Beer Press).

The most recent read has been Michael Cisco’s The Traitor, a truly remarkable book that really ought to be recognized for various awards. Of course, it is simply not widely enough read for, say, a Hugo, but juried awards (WFA, for example) should pay attention. Anyway, on to the book. The plot is simultaneously simple and muddled — a spirit-eater named Nophtha follows a spirit-eater cum soul-burner named Wite, and becomes a disciple and a witness to Wite’s transformation; the book itself is a sort of gospel written by captive Nophtha. The interesting part is that in this case Wite’s message is pretty much unknown — he has achieved a sort of afterlife but through means which are not exactly sympathetic. It is the gospel without a Jesus and written by Judas, if one were to rely on Christian analogy, which doesn’t quite do the book justice.

As far as the book itself, it is narrated in an overpowering and yet flat voice, and is a handy demonstration to whip out every time someone fresh from a writing workshop starts talking to you about the necessity of characterization or plot or dialog or description or any of these things. Cisco’s narrator is so alien as to minimize the reader’s ability to relate to him, and he recites a series of events mixed with his memories and thoughts in a flat manner — and it really has no right to be so hypnotic, but it is. A part of the appeal is undoubtedly due to the very effective dreamlike imagery, and Cisco doesn’t make a common mistake of making it comprehensible. Consider this passage:

“I stood among them and the tombs, which were all covered with carvings of their faces and with dust, and I heard nothing but quiet and spiders. Sometimes it would rain outside and the water might trickle in. Occasionally the door would open for another one, who would enter head first and on the back. I could see thick stone columns and the tombs very faintly from the light that shone under the door. I heard footsteps coming very faintly near. Then they were close, heavy, and uneven. I saw a shadow appear in the strip of light under the door, all but blocking it totally — the door began crashing in its frame as whatever it was on the other side was battering it and I knew that the door would give way and something insanely violent will come bursting through.”

It perfectly captures the visual and yet nonsensical quality of dreams, the paralyzing terror, the fluidity of the imagery and scenery. And the entire book reads like this, like a fevered dream, and it is completely unlike everything else out there. This is the sort of prose that makes you almost ill and out of your head with its strangeness and intensity, and it is the sort of book that will stay with you for a long time.

7 comments on “The Traitor by Michael Cisco

  1. I have to get this. The Divinity Student still brings a sort of paralysis in me, a sort of, “well how the hell do you beat that?”

  2. Michael Cisco is an absolute genius.

    Jonathan, The Traitor is every bit as captivating as The Divinity Student, but from a structural perspective that’s like comparing a matchbook to an acetylene torch. Ekaterina’s description of its “flat voice” is right on, but do not think that makes it in any way two-dimensional. Reading it, I could only visualize the story as translucent layers moving independently, illuminating (and shading) multiple facets of the developing experience. The novel literally evoked a visual sense of depth and relatedness. Wite’s story is bizarrely compelling; at once courageous and dastardly. Horrifying. Inevitable.

    I met Cisco once; if I’m a shadow, he is a mountain – no, a continent. No, a local cluster of galaxies. Being inside that guy’s head must be the ultimate trip. If you haven’t read this book you should probably just fix that. If you’re willing to be changed.

  3. I couldn’t agree more about Michael Cisco, he’s an absolute genius.

  4. GlenH says:

    And words fail, words fail, words fail.

  5. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    One of the crappiest things about having to put the Ministry of Whimsy on hiatus was not being able to publish The Traitor. I personally think it’s a modern classic. I think I’m gonna buy another 10 copies and force them onto people on the street.


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